Bluegreen achievements of the Key / English Government

28 April 2018, Hon Dr Nick Smith

Twenty years ago this July a small enthusiastic group of National MPs and supporters gathered in Wellington to create the Bluegreens.

We had a simple motivation – we wanted to make New Zealand greener and wealthier. We wanted to prove that you did not have to be red to be green, that you could be passionate about enterprise and be equally passionate about nature and that if Government got smart about policy, businesses could be powerful partners in doing environmental good.

It is so encouraging to have seen Bluegreens grow from strength to strength. The caucus group has gone from just three to 27 today. The volunteer base has expanded to a nationwide network. This annual forums have become a hotbed of ideas many of which have become government policy

Today I want to reflect on our nine years in Government – what we achieved, what we didn’t, and what are the lessons for the next generation of Bluegreen leaders coming up within National’s ranks .

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1 Climate Change

We made six important steps on climate change.

The international consensus is that the most important policy measure is getting a price on carbon. Many countries have tried, few have succeeded. The issue is so toxic it cost two Australian Prime Ministers their jobs in the last decade. We should not gloat. Our own journey has had more u turns and backward loops than the Raurimu Spiral. We started with a carbon tax proposal in ‘95, switched to an ETS in ‘99, reverted back to a carbon tax proposal in 2001, and then returned to an ETS policy in 2008.

Labour did the easy bit of handing out the carbon credits to foresters but left us the heavy lifting of imposing a carbon cost on business and consumers. The pressures to drop the ETS when we came to office were enormous with the GFC and vigorous campaign from climate change deniers and ACT. The going got particularly tough after Australia dumped their ETS in May 2010. Our decision to proceed, albeit with an initial 50 per cent obligation, gave New Zealand the policy machinery to reverse the growth of emissions.

Our steps in 2012 to block access to international units and in 2015 to phase up to a 100 per cent obligation this year, gives New Zealand the most comprehensive emission trading scheme in the world.

The greatest contribution New Zealand can make technologically is providing an answer to agricultural emissions that make up 15 per cent of the problem globally. We took the initiative in Copenhagen with the Global Alliance and have secured investments totalling over $250 million to this programme.

We should also be proud of our record on the international stage in fully meeting our Kyoto obligations for the 2008-2012 period and playing a pivotal role in securing the Paris agreement in 2015. The breakthrough, after more than a decade of stalemate was securing an international agreement that carried obligations for both developed and developing countries.

Synthetic gasses used in the refrigeration and air conditioning industries are projected to contribute 15 per cent of the global warming problem in the next century. The international agreement we helped secure in Kigali and the domestic regulations we adopted last year sees these gases phased out by 2036.

We also should be proud of our track record on renewables. The combination of our electricity, RMA and ETS reforms helped reverse a two decade decline. The numbers speak for themselves. Under the Bolger administration renewables dropped from 81 per cent to 71 per cent and then under Clark down to 65 percent. We reversed that trend improving it to 85 per cent, one of the highest in the world.

We funded insulation for 320,000 homes and passed laws requiring another 180,000 be done by July next year.  The incentives for electric cars, the national cycleway and the electrification of Auckland’s trains also all contributed positively.

The ultimate test for climate policy is results. The 27 years since we signed the framework convention on climate convention neatly divides into three nine year blocks. New Zealand emission gasses rose 13 per cent in the Bolger / Shipley years, and another ten per cent during the Clark years. Our achievement of actually reducing emissions albeit by two per cent, particularly given 10 per cent population and 25 percent economic growth, compares very favourably.

The test for the new Coalition Government will not be the volume of the rhetoric or the boldness of their targets in the distant future, but how much they can further bend that curve of emissions down during their term

I am very encouraged by our new leader’s commitment to climate change. I particularly commend the constructive role our new spokesperson Todd Muller is taking to the Climate Change Commission.  Bluegreens should be proud we bought the genesis of this idea to New Zealand at last years Forum by inviting Lord Devon down under.

2 Freshwater

We deliberately made freshwater our second environmental priority after climate change. We took the view that New Zealand, although highly blessed with freshwater resources, had failed to properly manage its use and that water quality was developing into a significant problem. Many regional councils were politically stalemated from making progress and there was a strong need for national direction.

A mantra of Bluegreens has been that you can’t manage what you don’t measure. Our regulations in 2009 requiring water takes to me metered has lifted the proportion  measured from 25 per cent to over 96 per cent. The LAWA initiative alongside our Environmental Reporting Act means far more data is being collected from our rivers and lakes, on E.coli, nutrients, water quality and algal and for the first time this data is being openly and regularly disclosed.

The publishing of this data has caused far more publicity and debate on water issues but was an essential first step to tackling the problem.

A good example is that some regional councils on measuring takes found half their water permits were being exceeded but now with disclosure, compliance is close to 100 per cent.

The crucial step to protecting the quality of our lakes, rivers and aquifers is setting limits. We need limits on the amount of water we take and limits on the amount of nutrients, sediment and pathogens that we allow into them. We set out on a plan through the Land and Water Forum to drive this limit setting process with a focus on getting buy in from the key sectors and incorporating the best science available.

Step 1 was the National Policy Statement of 2011 that set the limits for minimum flows for rivers. Step 2 in 2014 set limits on phyto plankton, nitrogen, phosphorus, ammonia, dissolved oxygen, cynobacteria, and in 2017 we set specific targets on improving the swimmability of our rivers and lakes

The New Zealand capital for freshwater issues is Canterbury. Seventy per cent of the irrigation is in this one region and it was growing without proper limits. Our decision, supported by all ten Canterbury Mayors, to put Commissioners into ECAN was all about getting a step change in water management. Canterbury a decade ago was the least advanced region in limit setting now it’s the most advanced.

We recognised lifting water standards came at a cost.

We ramped up the Government’s annual spend on lake and river clean-ups from an average $3 million a year from the Clark years to $30 million a year and we now have specific plans in place for over 30 of our major rivers and lakes.

The further step we took was developing the national rules to require stock to be excluded from our lakes and rivers.

We finalised the policy last year that will require 56,000 kms of fencing with a detailed timetable relative to farm types and steepness of country.  It was due to come into effect on 1 December last year and my hope is the new Government will get on and implement it.

We also invested hundreds of millions of dollars of capital into water infrastructure through the Crown Irrigation Fund and the Housing Infrastructure Fund. There is an inconsistency in the Government ending support for rural infrastructure but continuing support for the cities.

Well designed and managed rural schemes like Opuha have proved such investments deliver both environmental and economic benefits. Projects like Central Plains in Canterbury, Waimea in Nelson and Kurow Duntroon in Otago will in the future be looked back on with the same nostalgia as projects like the Rangitata in the 1930s and the Waitaki of the 1950s.

We disagree with the new Government that irrigation is the primary cause of New Zealand’s water quality problems. There are not many pivot irrigators in Auckland or Northland where water quality data shows our problems are worst. The drinking water failure in Havelock North was not caused by irrigation or intensive dairying as claimed but by poorly designed and managed infrastructure.

Ongoing investments in water infrastructure in both town and country will be critical to achieving our Bluegreen objective of a strong economy and better water quality

Maori rights and interests is one of the most challenging issues on freshwater.

I stand by our policy position and the legislative changes we made that give iwi a say in how water is managed but rejecting claims that they either own or have a right to exclusively control it.

As for climate change, the proof of the pudding is in the eating


That proof came last week with the publishing of the ten year river quality report from LAWA. That report showed than in respect of E.coli counts, phosphorus, water clarity, ammonia and nitrates, more of the 1500 sites showed improvement than deterioration. The report’s author Dr Roger Young noted that this was a first and in contrast to previously reports where some measures were getting worse. He describes the report as a turning point in New Zealand river health story.

This positive data is the fruits of years of hard graft, but the sweeter achievement is the hundreds of communities across New Zealand often in small isolated places, taking ownership and action in improving their local waterway

3 Conservation

One of our unique but most challenging issues is ensuring the survival of thousands of species that are endemic to New Zealand. There was a time when the biggest threats were hunting and forest clearance. Today it is introduced predators like stoats, rats and possums that kill 25 million native birds a year.

If you are serious about bird survival you need to be serious about pest control. Our Battle for Our Birds ramped up 1080 use 7-fold from 100,000 to over 700,000 ha a year.

We also invested heavily in completely eradicating pests on dozens of islands sometimes partnered with the private sector like on Great Mercury Island and Antipodes Islands totalling over 47,000 ha.

This photo of a dozen kea in the Kahurangi National Park near Nelson, has not been seen for half a century and is testament to this work.

Our conservation track record is reinforced by the growth in endangered bird numbers. During our watch takahē grew by 52 per cent, kakapo by 64 percent, and kōkako by 130% - a massive improvement.

Maggie Barry complemented my Battle of Our Birds with the War on Weeds putting tens of millions dollars going after the worst weeds like wilding pines and wondering willie that made up her ditty dozen.

Maggie’s most exciting conservation initiative was Predator Free 2050. It is a big audacious goal that a decade ago most would have said was a pipedream. DOC’s expertise in the last 25 years has seen it grow predator free areas from small islands of a few hectares to many thousands of hectares. We invested millions in new traps, poisons and lures.

Nor were we afraid to regulate where necessary. We banned shark finning. Extended projection for the Maui dolphins, and put in place rules to ensure the survival of long finned eels.

National’s conservation interest is in outperforming, rather than outspending our political opponents. During our watch DOC’s budget grew from $300 to 360 million a year, slightly ahead of inflation. There is always more to do in conservation and our partnership approach also helped secure more than $100 million of private sector investment in nature.


Oceans were our next priority with New Zealand having responsibility for the fourth largest EEZ in the world. New Zealand had no environmental regulations beyond the 12 mile mark or for over 90per cent of our ocean when we came to Government.

We wrote and passed the EEZ Act in 2012 that sets environmental standards for this vast area and requires independent assessment by the Environment Protection Authority of any activity like seabed mining, oil or gas exploration or aquaculture.           

The oceans are the new frontier for conservation. New Zealand became the first country in the world in 1971 under a National Government to provide for fully protected marine areas.

We created 11 new reserves, from the sub-Antarctic to north Auckland during our nine years. We also sponsored jointly with the US international agreement for the world’s largest reserve in the Ross Sea established last November.

My biggest disappointment is not concluding the Kermadec Reserve after it was vetoed by the Māori Party, but I am still confident in time we will get there with my Members Bill before Parliament.

Other initiatives included the new National Coastal Policy Statement that sets aside protections for 17 surf breaks and the ban on microbeads.

We also passed regulations requiring cameras on commercial fishing vessels to reduce dumping and the bycatch of seabirds and dolphins which the new Government has deferred and is threatening to scrap.

My greatest regret is not being able to conclude a rewrite of the outdated Marine Reserves Act. Labour tried during its last term and we also got stuck.



I have a deep seated concern that the combination of treaty issues and over stated property rights by the fishing industry and a confused assortment of government ministries with ocean responsibilities is compromising New Zealand’s ability to raise the bar on the management of our marine environment. This is a future big issue that Bluegreens will need to tackle.


We also had an active programme on reducing the harm from waste. In July 2009 we introduced the waste levy of $10 a tonne that has provided a stream of funding for over 300 recycling and waste minimisation projects.

Examples of key projects include the recycling of waste oil, recycling cell phones, hard plastics and more recently soft plastics.  My favourite was using end of life tyres as a substitute for making cement, excuse the pun, but a concrete solution.  

We separately funded a record number of contaminated sites, including the Tui Mine in Te Aroha, the Prohibition and Alexander Mine in Reefton, the Haven Estuary in Nelson and the Kopeopeo Canal in the Eastern Bay of Plenty.

The longer term solution is through product stewardship schemes where industry themselves design their products so as to be able to reuse the raw materials of which we did 13 covering products as diverse as silage wrap and photocopiers.

Scott is giving the Bluegreens new imperatives in the waste area, refreshing generations old initiatives like Keep New Zealand Beautiful, his Member’s Bill on the Litter Act, driving plastic recycling and building new ideas around the concept of a circular economy. 


Air quality

One of our greatest areas of success was improvements in air quality.

We toughened the fuel standards for both petrol and diesel, so the amount of permissible sulphur is down 98per cent on a decade ago.

We simultaneously upped the vehicle standards for both new and imported vehicles.

We took the opportunity with the Christchurch quakes to ramp up the phase out of high polluting home burners and put millions into subsidies to convert to cleaner heating.

A decade ago in Nelson, we exceeded the air quality standards 50 times a year – we are now down to only once or twice.

It is estimated that the premature deaths from air pollution nationally have been reduced in the last decade by 200 per year. New Zealand is now amongst the very best in the world for the quality of the air we breathe.

7 Strengthening systems and institutions

In addition to these six major areas from climate change, freshwater, native species, oceans, waste and air quality we had an agenda of strengthening New Zealand’s national environmental systems and institutions.

A weakness of the RMA has been the lack of national direction and consistency with over 86 councils struggling to write their own rules on all manner of environmental challenges. We produced ten National Policy Statements, National Environmental Standards and regulations during our nine years, in contrast to three during the Clark years and just one in the 1990s.

These cover complex areas like the regulation of contaminated soils, mobile phone towers, renewable electricity and plantation forestry. The forestry national standard comes into effect this Tuesday and will reduce sedimentation and erosion contributing to better water quality and protection of fish spawning areas.

We also made significant Bluegreen reforms to our national environmental institutions. We have replicated in the environmental space the model in the economic sphere of a Treasury focused on policy, the Reserve Bank on independent regulation and the Auditor-General, with the Ministry for the Environment as the policy advisor, the Environment Protection Authority as independent regulator and the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment as auditor with the new responsibilities of the Environmental Reporting Act



National has never believed that GDP is a sole measure of a nation’s performance. This new system of robust, independent environment is working well, with the latest report out this month on our land, following reports on water, air, climate, and our oceans. These will help drive further improvements into the future.

This summary of our 12 achievements in Government matches well with National’s Bluegreen brand of environmental activism. 

It is true that we could have reduced emissions by more, gone harder on clean water, or saving nature if you have no regard to the impacts on people’s jobs, incomes or the cost of living.

National has never been a single issue party nor should we ever be. Our goal is not to be the greenest party but the party best able to marry together high environmental standards with a strong economy.

Can I conclude by recalling an international forum I was at in Europe with Environment Ministers from around the world.

An academic had distributed a paper rating the environmental performance of countries citing the quality of the air, water, oceans, protection areas etc and as you expect New Zealand ranked very strongly.

The Minister sitting next to me said I must have the easiest job in the New Zealand Cabinet.  It has not felt that way, but reminded me of how privileged I have been. Some people get to be Conservation or Environment Minister once. I have had both jobs twice as well as being Climate Change Minister.

Bluegreens are an awesome movement. We represent those salt of the earth New Zealanders who love this country and our environment but also want our industries to succeed and prosper.  A special thanks to Sir Rob Fenwick, Terry Dunleavy, Andrew von Dadelszen and Geoff Thompson who have so ably led the executive and party side.

The new generation of leadership stepping up on the caucus side of Scott Simpson, Sarah Dowie, Todd Muller, and Erica Standford and Chris Severne on the party side give me even more confidence for the future.

I am excited about my new role in co-ordinating overall policy development in the caucus and party and will, behind the scenes, be giving the new Bluegreen team every support.

If I have some parting advice it is this.

Never be afraid of engaging with New Zealanders from all walks of life –  Greenpeace activist, fisher, farmer or student – environmentalism runs deep in the kiwi psyche.

Stay true to our heritage as science-focused environmentalists. Stray from the science and you will get into trouble.

Devise policies that get kiwis working together. The politics of division rarely gets results.

And finally, never give up on the vision that with smart policy, New Zealand can have a strong economy and a clean heathy environment.     


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